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Asia

AI: Rights situation 'rapidly deteriorating' in Maldives

Threats against the media, harassment, show trials - a new Amnesty International report says that human rights in the Maldives are increasingly eroded, and warns of a "climate of fear" spreading in the island-nation.

Released on April 23, the Amnesty International (AI) report says that human rights in the Maldives are in "free fall" and accuses the authorities of muzzling peaceful protesters, silencing critical media and civil society, while at the same time abusing the judicial system to imprison opposition politicians.

The AI paper comes as criminal charges have been filed in recent months against key opposition figures in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation. The most well-known case is arguably that of former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges. The 47-year-old politician was recently found guilty of ordering the arrest and detention of a senior judge when he was in power.

Malediven Präsident Mohamed Nasheed

Nasheed's trial and imprisonment has drawn widespread international criticism

Nasheed's trial and imprisonment has drawn widespread international criticism and cast doubt over the Maldives' transition to democracy. He became the island-nation's first democratically elected leader in 2008, following his victory over Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

But Nasheed resigned in 2012 after weeks of public protests over the judge's arrest and eventually lost the support of the military and police. In 2013, he lost the presidential election to Gayyoom's half-brother, Abdulla Yameen.

Nasheed's arrest last month came only weeks after a key ally defected from incumbent President Abdulla Yameen's governing coalition to join hands with Nasheed's opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

A show trial?

AI argues that both the former president and two other imprisoned high-profile opposition politicians - former defense minister Mohamed Nazim and MP Ahmed Nazim - were all victims of politically motivated trials.

"Nasheed's imprisonment came after a sham trial, but he is far from the only one locked up on trumped-up charges and after unfair trials. It is disturbing how far the Maldives government has co-opted the judiciary as a tool to cement its own hold on power," said Abbas Faiz, AI's Maldives Researcher, who launched the briefing at a press conference in Delhi, India.

Opposition supporters argue Nasheed's conviction was aimed at eliminating him as a potential candidate in the 2018 presidential election.

Based on interviews with lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists and political activists, the AI paper also speaks of a "climate of fear" spreading across the country as safeguards on human rights are "increasingly eroded." The report, however, doesn't include statements from government officials.

Arrests and restrictions

Protests by Nasheed supporters have been met with a harsh response by the authorities. According to the rights group, at least 140 peaceful protesters have been arrested since February, and were only released on conditions that severely limited their rights to take part in further demonstrations. Those detained include at least three MPs from Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), as well as other MDP politicians.

Malediven Präsidenschaftswahl 2013 Wahlplakat

Nasheed lost the 2013 presidential election to Abdulla Yameen

"The international community must wake up and realize that behind the façade of a tourist paradise, there is a dark trend in the Maldives where the human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating," said Faiz.

The rights group also referred to restrictions imposed by the authorities on when and where to demonstrate as well as to threats against independent media critical of the government.

Tensions at 'boiling point'

Also mentioned is the rise of vigilante religious groups - allegedly in cahoots with the police -that have stepped up kidnappings and attacks on social gatherings in recent years, in particular against those accused of promoting atheism. "This year, such gangs have in connivance with police attacked peaceful demonstrators, yet no one has been brought to justice for these attacks," said AI in the report.

The briefing also documents how civil society organizations and human rights defenders have increasingly faced harassment, threats and attacks. This has included the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), which the Supreme Court charged with high treason and undermining the constitution following the HRCM's submission on the state of human rights in the Maldives to the UN Universal Periodic Review.

"The Maldives authorities must immediately end its disturbing crackdown on human rights," said Faiz. "Political tensions are already at a boiling point, and further harassment and attacks on those opposing the authorities will only make the situation spiral out of control."

Luxus-Resorts

The current rights situation may also have implications for the country's important tourism sector

The current situation may also have implications for the country's economy, which is heavily-reliant on foreign tourists. The tourism sector is the backbone of Maldives' economy, accounting for a significant share of the national income and its foreign exchange reserves.

"A protracted crisis might lead to law and order problems and many Western tourists, who bring a lot of money into the country, may shy away from this place, thus impacting Maldives' tourism industry," S. Chandrasekharan, director of the India-based think tank South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), told DW.